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Heirloom vegetables: historically and nutritiously precious.

Q What are heirloom vegetables?

A Heirloom vegetables, also known as heritage vegetables, have taken off in popularity. These timeless varieties, often found in quirky shapes, sizes and colors, are readily found in farmers' markets, backyard gardens and upscale restaurants. Robust flavor is only one reason for the rekindled interest in heirlooms. Whether you're a foodie or not, it's hard to resist heirlooms' one-of-a-kind charm, rich nutrients and colorful histories.

The best hand-me-downs. Heirlooms are vegetable varieties introduced before 1951, when the first hybrids were commercialized (though many varieties are much older, with centuries-old provenance from Europe, Asia and Africa). Passed down through the generations, the seeds were saved by families much like great-grandmother's vintage wedding gown. There are over 25,000 heirloom vegetable varieties known today.

Most every modern vegetable crop has an heirloom predecessor. Truly, you don't know beans, lettuce or corn until you've experienced the heirloom varieties. Unlike the typical hybrid vegetables from the supermarket, heirlooms are open-pollinated cultivars, meaning they grow from seed and come back just the same, or "true to type." Hybrids, on the other hand, are the result of two or more varieties of cross-pollinated plants that can't continue to reproduce on their own. They are bred to maximize consistency, yield, and such traits as a tough skin to resist mechanical picking, long distance shipping and pesticide application. The repeated reproduction of these traits leads to modern monoculture fanning (growing only one crop variety over a large area), which limits biodiversity and has led to soil-mineral depletion that can affect the nutrient quality of crops.

Preserving powerful nutrition. Not only are heirlooms rich in flavor and history, some studies suggest they may be nutritionally superior to hybrids, possibly due to the shift in focus to large-scale production of hybrids. In a study at the University of Texas at Austin (published in the December 2004 issue of the Journal of the American College of Nutrition) researchers studied 43 crops from 1950-1999 and found significant declines in six nutrients, including protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin and ascorbic acid during that period.

Plant your own heirloom tomatoes, squash and eggplant and enjoy them ripe from the vine, warm from the sun and naturally aromatic. A walk through the farmers' market can recreate this experience. Eaten raw in a salad, roasted on the grill, or pureed in a soup, the array of colors, flavors, and textures of our treasured heirloom vegetables cannot be matched.

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Title Annotation:Ask EN
Publication:Environmental Nutrition
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2010
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